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Physics and philosophy at play

U of T professors answer questions about dark matter, instrumentation, and more

Physics and philosophy at play

At a panel earlier this month, undergraduates in the joint specialist Physics and Philosophy program at U of T posed philosophical questions arising from findings in physics to Professors David Curtin, Michael Luke, and Michael Miller at McLennan Physical Laboratories.

Dark matter and dark energy

Valentina Pentcheva, a Physics and Philosophy specialist, explained that dark energy and dark matter are unobservable components of reality, which compose 72 per cent and 23 per cent of the universe respectively. That leaves only five per cent of the universe observable.

Theories of dark matter and dark energy arose from researchers “trying to make sense of observations that contradict our physical theories up until now,” continued Pentcheva. Dark energy explains the “rapid expansion of the universe” while dark matter explains the movement of stars at the edge of galaxies.

“How can we consider our science adequate, if we missed over 90 per cent of our universe?” asked Pentcheva.

Furthermore, should we conceptualize dark matter and dark energy as “real things,” or “should we instead be committed to them only as instrumental tools?” Finally, she asked if “is there any reason why we should be more confident in the truth of our current theories” rather than others that have been falsified.

Curtin, Assistant Professor of Physics, explained that dark matter and dark energy are indeed every real things, even though we cannot directly image them due to their inability to interact with light.

“Dark matter and dark energy are, in fact, extremely observable and extremely precise physical predictions and have very concrete physical consequences,” said Curtin. For example, when astrophysicists view the collision of two galaxy clusters, they can “map out the dark matter” involved in the collision using an observational technique called gravitational lensing.”

“Just because we can’t see it without eyes, doesn’t make it not right,” Curtin continued. “Dark matter is exceptionally robust empirically.”

But Miller, Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy, raised the point that empirically robust concepts in the past have been proven to be non-existent, such as the existence of luminiferous aether, a type of substance proposed to explain how light waves travelled through space, which was disproven in 1887 with the Michelson-Morley experiment.

After an in-depth discussion with Curtin and Luke, a professor in the Department of Physics, Miller noted that even if we cannot directly observe a concept theorized to exist, we can mitigate our concerns that the theory may be false by pursuing “multiple independent strands of evidence.” If each strand “independently demonstrates to us” that the concept exists, then we can be more confident that the theory works out as in the case of dark matter and dark energy.

The validity of using instrumentation

Sasha Manu, also a Physics and Philosophy specialist, presented the background and questions for the second topic of discussion: observation. “Our sense experience clearly constrains what types of observations we are able to make,” said Manu.

But scientists can create “high-profile discoveries” such as that of gravitational waves using “countless electronic connections and computer programs running in unison,” which lets scientists send a “probe into nature far beyond anything possible with the bare senses.”

What connects the “undeniably dissimilar experiences” of direct observation and observation using instrumentation, such that we “treat them in many ways as being the same.” Moreover, Manu asked if we are “justified in doing so.”

Luke opened the discussion by saying that he agrees that no direct observation occurs with our senses when scientists look for phenomena such as gravitational waves or the Higgs Boson, an elementary particle studied in particle physics. However, he says that he thinks “that’s what science is” using theoretical intermediaries to make observations of phenomena that are not directly observable.

He continued by explaining that every time physicists agree they understand something with a certain degree of confidence, they can use it as a basis or tool to explore other phenomena.

The nature of physical laws

Hannah Sousa-Fronenberg, a Physics and Philosophy specialist, asked the questions for the final topic of discussion: the nature of physical laws.

How is it that “real and abstract mathematical laws govern and influence the behaviour of regular physical objects? Do these real and existing laws cause physical phenomena to occur? Does this mean that the laws of nature existed ‘before’ the Big Bang?”

Miller opened the discussion, explaining that “there’s lots of different views on the issue,” but he wished to focus on two classes of them.

According to the first class of views, explained Miller, physical laws are “just kind of patterns in the way the world unfolds, and there’s nothing over and above that to say about how things happen.” And according to the second class, physical laws “actually govern the behaviour” of particles in the world.

U of T receives $20 million for depression research

Research to focus on biological causes of depression

U of T receives $20 million for depression research

The Labatt family has recently donated $20 million to U of T to support research into biological causes of depression. This field is regarded as the next frontier of depression research.

The donation has been used to create the Labatt Family Network for Research on the Biology of Depression, which also involves the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), both of which are partners of U of T. The network has established two chair positions at U of T with links to these institutions to further research.

Professor Benoit Mulsant of U of T’s Department of Psychiatry is serving as the inaugural Labatt Family Chair. According to Mulsant, the donation will fund more academic fellowships, help attract talent to U of T’s clinical research effort, and enable mentor residency opportunities. Mulsant’s research primarily focuses on the treatment of elderly people with severe mental disorders. He is also a Clinician Scientist at CAMH’s Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute.

In Canada, mental health-related research at large receives about one third of the money that is invested in cancer-related research. From 2008–2015, the Canadian Institute of Health Research invested about $44.7 million a year in mental health-related research, compared to $133.8 million a year for cancer-related research.

A myriad of biological factors can result in mood changes and trigger mental health issues. In the human body, the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system work in tandem, and any changes to these could result in behavioural changes that may manifest as depression or other mental health disorders. These changes can be wrought by physical stressors, like changing seasons, or psychological stressors, like abuse.

In 2007, the Labatt family donated $30 million to SickKids to support the Brain Tumour Research Centre and establish the Labatt Family Heart Centre, a facility dedicated to heart research, cardiology, and providing care for children with congenital heart disease.

Missing girl found near UTSG

Maya Samana-Carter was reported missing on Saturday

Missing girl found near UTSG

Toronto police says that missing Toronto girl Maya Samana-Carter was found on Monday after being reported missing on Saturday.

Samana-Carter, 17, was last seen on Friday, March 1 at approximately 1:00 pm, in the Spadina Avenue and Bloor Street West area.

The spy in the cell phone

What is the NSO Group’s infamous Pegasus spyware, and how can activists protect themselves?

The spy in the cell phone

On October 1, U of T’s Citizen Lab published a report titled “The Kingdom Came to Canada.” It details how McGill University student and Saudi human rights activist Omar Abdulaziz was cyberstalked by Saudi Arabian-linked agents.

The next day, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Abdulaziz’s mentor, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never walked out. Two months later, Citizen Lab scientists were targeted by undercover agents seeking information on their personal lives and current research. It reads like a Hollywood political thriller — only here, everyone involved is unfortunately real.

The software Pegasus is at the heart of the conspiracy. The spyware suite is produced and marketed by Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group Technologies. It first came under media scrutiny in 2016, following the use of the software against Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor.

Pegasus is capable of collecting private data — from phone logs to text messages — stored on a targeted cell phone. It can also actively trigger input devices, like a phone’s camera or microphone, which allows the recording of any activity in range of the device. All of this can be performed without the knowledge of the victim.

This is made possible by exploiting “zero-day” vulnerabilities in the device software. These are vulnerabilities previously unknown to the device vendors.

In their original 2016 report on the NSO Group’s spyware, Citizen Lab observed Pegasus gain access to an iPhone 5 through a disguised JavaScript download.

The downloaded data then employs a memory corruption vulnerability in WebKit, the framework Apple’s Safari browser is built on, to execute its function within Safari.

This code then accessed the iPhone’s kernel — the core of iOS — through another memory corruption vulnerability. In an uncontrolled scenario, this would allow unauthorized programs to run without the user’s knowledge.

In contrast to the sophistication of its software, Pegasus’ method of initial phone infection is identical to common “phishing” schemes. Exploit links — which masquerade as benign hyperlinks — are texted to the target which, upon being opened, prompt the JavaScript download.

This deception can take many forms; the Pegasus operator who targeted Abdulaziz, for example, impersonated news organizations by employing domain names like or

As documented in a September 2018 report “Hide and Seek,” Citizen Lab was able to trace a Pegasus operator by activating a known Pegasus link and observing the ensuing behaviour of the link and linked server.

By searching for similar patterns of hyperlink behaviour, the researchers identified 1,091 IP addresses and 1,014 domain names associated with Pegasus. Then, by using a categorizing technique known as Athena, they were then able to identify the IP addresses of 36 Pegasus operators.

Citizen Lab was able to trace the Pegasus operators to 45 countries by locating domain names of Pegasus servers using the infected devices. Different internet service providers (ISPs) in different locations use different domain name systems, which were matched up to the domain names the infected devices searched for.

These operators were then assigned names based on their activity of interest. For example, Abdulaziz’s cyberstalker was named “KINGDOM” due to its Saudi-centred activity.

“Based on the methodology outlined in Hide and Seek, we could observe infections ‘checking in’ at the [ISP] level, but nothing more in terms of granular detail,” explained Dr. Ronald Deibert, Director of Citizen Lab and a Professor in the Department of Political Science, in an email to The Varsity. This lack of detail means that there is insufficient evidence to concretely tie KINGDOM to a specific individual or the Saudi government.

Regarding reports of possible misuses of Pegasus, NSO Group said, “Contrary to statements made by [Citizen Lab], our product is licensed to government and law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of investigating and preventing crime and terror.”

In response, Citizen Lab clarified that it has not levelled any accusation against NSO Group’s intentions, but that research “continues to demonstrate some highly concerning real-world examples of the abuse of NSO Group technology in practice.”

To journalists, activists, and other individuals at risk of running afoul of a Pegasus operator, Deibert recommends using Citizen Lab’s Security Planner, as well as reading the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defense Guide. “This type of targeted espionage against civil society is a growing crisis of democracy,” said Deibert.

“The market for commercial spyware is largely unregulated, and prone to abuse.” Deibert emphasized that this is a new age of digital insecurity, based on the fact that our portable devices are always on, which offers an easy point of intrusion to any individual’s private life.